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GOP congressional leaders hesitant on stimulus resurrection

By Ian Christopher McCaleb
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- GOP congressional leaders were cautious Sunday when asked if the economic stimulus bill -- jettisoned last week in advance of Congress' adjournment -- would be revived, saying economic conditions could change before the House and Senate reconvene next year.

Appearing Sunday on CNN's "Late Edition," House Speaker Dennis Hastert declined to characterize the stimulus bill as a top priority when the House returns to session January 23.

Hastert, R-Illinois, said House leaders have a long legislative wish list and the economy may demonstrate enough recovery to make a stimulus effort unnecessary.

"We're going to have to see where we are in the first month of the new year and make our assessments there," Hastert said. "But I don't discount anything."

If such a package is needed, the speaker added, it may look vastly different from the legislation that died in the Senate. Some economists are voicing optimism that the nation's recessionary economy is showing renewed signs of life.

"We'll have to look at each package when it comes," Hastert said. "I'm sure the next package may have some different ingredients, depending on what the times are and what the needs are."

Democrats objected to health insurance provisions

Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, voiced similar sentiments on CBS' "Face the Nation."

"We'll have a chance now for about a month to assess and see what's happening," Lott said from his home in Pascagoula, Mississippi. "We'll be able to make a decision in late January or early February on whether we need to pick that bill back up."

Lott expressed disappointment that Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, refused to bring a scaled-back House version of the stimulus measure to the floor last week, saying he believed the bill was necessary.

Nonetheless, he said that the argument over economic stimulus might be a thing of the past when Congress reassembles for the second year of its 107th session.

"We should have passed that package last week," he said. "But the need for it is beginning to decline."

Most Senate Democrats said they objected to the health insurance provisions of the House stimulus bill, which passed the lower chamber 224-193 in the early hours of Thursday morning. Led by Lott, Republicans tried to bring the bill up on the Senate floor later that day but could not reach a debate agreement with the majority Democrats, and the issue was set aside for the year.

"[This was] a cut-down package that we couldn't get across the Senate floor, even though we passed it in the House," Hastert said. "That is unfortunate."

The speaker said House Republicans sought to satisfy several aims with their last version of the bill and defended it against criticism. Provisions to provide tax relief for individuals and corporations, he said, were drafted to bring a new burst of job creation.

Getting people back into their pre-September 11 spending habits was also a priority, he said.

"We wanted to bring consumer confidence forward, and that's the unemployment insurance, that's the rebates and those things," Hastert said. "…The most important thing was to get people buying again."

Corporate tax incentives, he said, were intended to allow businesses to "amass capital," giving them enough cash on hand to bring in new workers.

Both Hastert and Lott said the House and Senate had several pressing obligations when they come back into session.

In the House, Hastert said, a supplemental spending bill for homeland security would top the early agenda. Democrats had called for several extra billion dollars for security and defense efforts in the weeks following the September attacks in addition to the $40 billion package on which Congress and the Bush White House agreed.

President Bush is expected to ask for $15 billion more in his fiscal 2003 budget request, which should be unveiled in February.

"We are going to do a supplemental," Hastert said. "The Democrats wanted to spend more money. I said, 'No, let's get some of that money out of the pipeline and see what the real needs are.' "

Other priorities in new year

Hastert also promised that health care would be a priority in the House, including a "reorganization" of Medicare and a prescription drug regime for seniors. Also on tap would be adjustments to the education bill that the House and Senate just passed, Hastert said, and completion of an energy bill.

In the Senate, Lott said Sunday that several issues would have to come up early next year.

Among those -- a so-called "fast-track" trade bill, energy legislation and a new farm bill. An agriculture bill championed by the Democrats fell in the Senate last week.

"Unfortunately to me, there was an awful lot of obstructionism [in the Senate]," Lott said.

Sen. John Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat who signed on to White House efforts to get the stimulus bill completed, said Sunday that accusations of obstructionism were unfounded. Stimulus remains a necessity, he said, and something will have to be done if the economy is still in rough shape early next year.

"I think we need an economic stimulus, and I think that is the best thing to do," Breaux told Fox News on Sunday, "though we may have to go into deficit spending to do that."

Should a stimulus be needed, Breaux predicted there wouldn't be enough money available to attend to some of the priorities Hastert listed.

"If the surplus is spent to bring the economy back into working order, then we aren't going to have a lot of money left," he said.


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